Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Writing Lessons from a Mannequin: Building Character

by Cat Woods

While in Chicago last fall, Dear Hubby and I awoke one night to a very loud and still-unidentified vibration. It was 4:30 in the morning. My courageous DH braved the boogey man and opened our hotel door.

"You have to see this."

I headed into the hall in my nightie only to be confronted by a slim porcelain leg. Actually four legs. 

Needless to say, we giggled ourselves back to sleep, and over the  next few days, shared the hysterical pictures of the motionless mannequins as they made their way around the 17th floor.

Incidentally, their antics got me thinking about characters.

To me, characters are the essence of a great book. I would rather read a dull plot with exciting characters than an inspiring plot with motionless mannequins.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed Mister and Missus Mann E. Quin's Chicago antics. I just don't want to read about them for an entire novel. In fact, following lifeless, expressionless characters through the twists and turns of a riveting story is the fastest way for a book to get dropped from my reading list into the nearest dumpster.

And so I bring you:

Writing Lessons from a Mannequin
  1. Give your characters a head. Seriously, Mister and Missus were headless wonders. I suppose it's so we don't freak out by finding our neighbor's mug on an overgrown doll, but still.  Characters in novels need a good head on their shoulders.  Don't get me wrong, they don't need a high IQ, they just need to have motive and reason.  They can't simply bumble around and stumble upon the murderer's identity.  They cannot spend an entire novel ducking at all the right times so as not to get shot.  This ploy only works in picture books and slap stick comedy.  So unless that's what you're writing, give your character a head and some brains to go along with it.
  2. But if you choose to stick with brawn, please give your characters some flaws. The perfectly sculpted creatures in the hall were a bit unnerving. I mean who wants to gaze at flawless wonders? No scars marred their porcelain skin. No wrinkles or stretch marks or love handles could be found. Not a single mole or ingrown toenail existed between the lovely couple. Ugh. Make your MCs real.  Give us something to love and hate, to laugh at and laugh with.  Make them human, or we--your naturally flawed readers--will never relate to them.
  3. And don't forget the details that make your MCs unique. Mister and Missus Mann E. Quin were barely distinguishable from each other. Granted Mister had more muscle tone and Missus had larger...pecs. But all in all, a slimmer build doth not set characters apart. Nothing about Mister's physique indicated his penchant for scotch and water, and we had no clue from Missus' calves that she was a bit capricious with a loyalty stronger than our aging black lab's. All we really knew was that they enjoyed frolicking nekkid in the halls of a very prestigious hotel.  They could have been any number of mannequins roaming the streets of Chicago.  A fate not good enough for your novels.
  4. And lastly, throw in a little intrigue. Aside from obvious character traits, it's fun to give your MC a bit of mystery. Provide a quirk of some kind that plays into the larger picture. One that subtly speaks of the past and promises interest in the future. Yep, our otherwise silent friends did have one quirk that made DH and I scratch our heads in wonder. Mann E. wore a hard hat. One day it was yellow. Another day it was white. Sometimes there was writing on it and other times it was blank. He often shared it with Missus.  Intriguing to say the least, and a quirk that begged an answer: Why? 

Which brings me full-circle to Lesson One. Characters in novels need to be fully fleshed out and have the tools they need to succeed. Consider the MC's obsessive fascination with insects who solves the murder-by-poison mystery or the physically outmatched parkour nerd who outruns the bad guys in a maze-like trap. Often, it's these quirky personality traits, latent abilities, obsessive passions and physical flaws that save the day. 

They must be in our writing before they are needed so as to feel organic to the characters and the story.  They are the clues and red herrings we use as building blocks for the characters populating our novels.  They are pieces of the whole our readers will fall in love with.

Without an MC who leaps off the page and feels real--who makes us care enough to keep reading--we might as well knock around town with a headless doll in tow.  While this might be fun for a little while, eventually the weight will drag us down and we'll be tempted to ditch Mann E. in the nearest dumpster along with those nasty, characterless books.

How about you?  Do you like your characters perfect or do strive for realism?  Can a character be too realistic as to be fake?  If so, where is that line and how do we balance it as writers?  What tips do you have for building strong characters? 


Kana Tyler said...

Mt characters tend to have a lot of ME in them--so... Definitely flawed. ;)
Great post!

Cat Woods said...

I hear you on that, Kana. It's easy to let yourself creep into your characters. But then again, we always hear "write what you know" and who better to know than ourselves?

Thanks for popping over and sharing your beautifully flawed self with us!

Mohamed Mughal said...

Consistent quirks, consistent voice and the occasional surprise make for strong characters.

Simon Stone said...

Fully agree with this, I would also chose characters over plot (and in much literary fiction this is often the case, the characters ARE the plot). In my mind, the more flawed they are (especially emotionally/psychologically) the better!

catwoods said...


Consistency is key, as long as we still allow our characters to grow. Thanks for bringing that up. So important to keep track of what we write and how we use that info. Especially when writing a trilogy, sequel or series.

catwoods said...

Nice to meet another character lover, Simon. Great characters make a novel. And like you, I really have a soft spot for the emotional/psychological flaws. To me, these traits are what make us all human.

Thanks for your input!

Christopher Hudson said...

Nobody watches a James Bond flic because of the great plots.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post, Cat. The most important part of the story me is the characters too.

And I love the mannequins! :)

Yvonne Osborne said...

You got this right. Characters are the life blood of fiction. The mannequins in the hallway would've freaked me out! I don't even like looking at them in storefronts.

I don't like perfect characters and I don't like predictable characters. I try not to write about either. But I don't have any tips. I just recognize what I like when I see it/write it.

catwoods said...


So very true and a great example! Thanks for so vividly illustrating this point for us!

catwoods said...

Jemi and Yvonne,

Funny how different we are, and such a great illustration to us writers that not all readers share the same likes and dislikes. Totally off topic, but pertinent none-the-less. When those reviews come in we have to know we can't please everyone.

And back on topic: you make a great point, Yvonne. Characters are a bit like real life people. We don't always know who we will connect with or why. Sometimes it just happens. That's the magic of great writing!

PS. I was a bit creeped out right away by them, but their unconventional poses were too hysterical to be freaked out over. Only a select few, cropped pictures are suitable for public consumption!

Lisa and Laura said...

LOVE this post. And we love flawed, quirky characters. I think we always struggle writing hot boys because they're too perfect. We love the nerds!

catwoods said...

Thank you, ladies!

Love that you love the nerds. I think they get far too little page time...and they really are too sweet to let the hot guys have all the fun! Far more interesting.

Joey Francisco said...

I feel it's important to do an outline of each major character. When I do it, I pretend I'm interviewing each character asking about their life, their feelings, and what is their prime motivator or inspiration and about their feelings.

This way, your characters have their backstory, they become more true-to-life, and it's easier to have them interact with the other characters in your book, because you know finally what makes them tick.

Can ya'll tell I was a psych minor in college?